All posts by Isabel Davis

Senior lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Birkbeck, University of London.

Catch us at Being Human 2017

The Conceiving Histories project opens its doors to Being Human Festival goers. Our exhibition [8th November-13th December] will be on throughout the week of the festival and we are also hosting a ‘Behind the Exhibition’ talk at which you can hear about some curious cases of un-pregnancy from the past.

22nd November 6-8pm. Keynes Library. 43 Gordon Square, London. WC1H 0PD. See on a map.

Free. Booking required.


Peltz Gallery. Birkbeck School of Arts. 8th November – 13th December 2017.

Gallery opening times: Monday-Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 10am-5pm. Closed on Sundays. Free entry. See gallery location on a map.

How can something that doesn’t happen have a history? How can there be a material trace of un-pregnancy in the archive? This exhibition explores this paradox, finding and reimagining a material history of pregnancy feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose. Whilst reproductive medicine is at the front of scientific modernity, biomedical technology has no jurisdiction over the experiences of waiting, unknowing and disappointment.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary historian, Isabel Davis, and visual artist, Anna Burel, producing creative and fictional reworkings of the archival materials of un-pregnancy. This exhibition re-materialises the past, giving structure and shape to things that have been left to us in text. The artworks explore the search for knowledge about a reproductive body which is as opaque as history: resistant, mediated and contested. They reflect on the signs of pregnancy in, from and on the body, and on messages and messengers, divine or earthly. Empty uterine spaces are imagined here displaced from the corporeal frame, labelled and dated, filled with strange visions. Swollen and flat structures, pads and envelopes, hollow and filled, contrast the fantasies of or desire for pregnancy with the reality of the un-pregnant body.

Behind the Exhibition

Come and hear about the making of the work and some of the research behind it. This event will be exploring the curious material history of un-pregnancy, that is of pregnancies feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose, and how this history can be re-imagined and materialised to think about conception and fertility today.

In particular, we will be further exploring the case of Mary Tudor and her two false pregnancies and twentieth-century frog pregnancy testing.

There will be a wine reception and a chance to visit the exhibition.


Yerma: a review

Last year Anna and I queued along The Cut at the Young Vic Theatre for returns to see Yerma, an adaptation of the Federico García Lorca play by Simon Stone. There weren’t any. But this week I had the chance to see it at a nearly empty cinema in a soulless shopping centre off the M25 as part of the National Theatre Live programme. Weird, not quite the same, but we take what we can get sometimes.

The play, people may know, tells the story of an unnamed woman (played by Billie Piper) unable to have a child with her husband John (Brendan Cowell). The action takes place in a glass box which mostly represents the couple’s new and big empty house, although also sometimes other places. Watching the action as if in an aquarium, the audience comes to represent the social expectation that couples become parents and the pitying social response when they don’t. The central character writes a blog about her ‘journey’ full of confessional information: about her resentment for her pregnant sister, for example, and her partner’s lack of co-operation with ‘baby-making’. Similarly, in the play’s action, then, the world looks in through see-through walls.

One wordless scene is played out to soaring baroque music – Pergolesi perhaps. The box is suddenly furnished with sofa, a kitchen island, a child’s cup on the floor. John and his partner are bouncing a baby boy in a sleep suit. Later, it turns out, the child is not theirs. When they return him to his mother the box is empty once again. I was as drawn to this play as others have been. The energy and commitment in the performances moved me, of course.

I wanted to see Yerma because the Conceiving Histories project is so embroiled with the questions it raises: about waiting and disappointment, about not being pregnant and not having a child. As I look through different historical literature for accounts of these experiences I am continually struck by the same story of the mad woman, made mad by her childlessness. This woman stands in the centre of our understandings of childlessness.  Similar characters, albeit a great deal less convincing, turned up in the recent series of Top of the Lake, for example. Here, women who are unable to have children resort to exploitative surrogacy arrangements using immigrant sex workers. One particular woman is driven mad enough to dance in and out of the traffic wearing her nightgown. She’s the Gothic version, embroiled in the dark secrets in which Gothic fiction revels. Yerma, in contrast, is more statuesque and, because the whole play is given over to this figure, more like a Greek tragedy. In whichever version, this woman steps out from the past to confront our own modernity; Yerma’s heroine has twelve unsuccessful rounds of IVF.

Part of the need for this mad woman is to do with how stories work. The narrative about wanting to have children either finishes with the person having a child or it doesn’t. But how can the latter story really work dramatically? If they don’t have a child then something else has to happen: so, they go mad. Can’t we think up some other endings, I wonder as I leave the cinema. When I voice this to my partner who watched Yerma with me, he replies: ‘Well, what do you want?  A play where at the end the main character says, “I am a bit disappointed, but I’m soldiering on”?’.

I’m working on the answer to that question and it involves thinking about this mad, childless female figure and our cultural investment in her, but it also involves finding out other endings for this story by looking at documents from the archives, imagining the powerful, dramatic ways in which we might tell the potentially boring story about ‘soldiering on’, of nothing happening, of stories that don’t end happily or don’t end at all.

Conceiving Histories Exhibition

Peltz Gallery. Birkbeck School of Arts. 8th November – 13th December 2017.

Gallery opening times: Monday-Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 10am-5pm. Closed on Sundays. Free entry. See gallery location on a map.

How can something that doesn’t happen have a history? How can there be a material trace of un-pregnancy in the archive? This exhibition explores this paradox, finding and reimagining a material history of pregnancy feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose. Whilst reproductive medicine is at the front of scientific modernity, biomedical technology has no jurisdiction over the experiences of waiting, unknowing and disappointment.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary historian, Isabel Davis, and visual artist, Anna Burel, producing creative and fictional reworkings of the archival materials of un-pregnancy. This exhibition re-materialises the past, giving structure and shape to things that have been left to us in text. The artworks explore the search for knowledge about a reproductive body which is as opaque as history: resistant, mediated and contested. They reflect on the signs of pregnancy in, from and on the body, and on messages and messengers, divine or earthly. Empty uterine spaces are imagined here displaced from the corporeal frame, labelled and dated, filled with strange visions. Swollen and flat structures, pads and envelopes, hollow and filled, contrast the fantasies of or desire for pregnancy with the reality of the un-pregnant body.

15th November 2017- Private viewing and reception 6-8:30pm. Reserve your free place. All Welcome!

Free event: Behind the Exhibition public talk. 22nd November 2017. 6-8pm. Part of the Being Human Festival Programme. Book your free place here.

Academic and Artist symposium. 30th November-1st December 2017. Book a place here.

This exhibition has been generously supported by the Peltz Gallery, the Centre for Medical Humanities at Birkbeck and, through a kickstarter campaign, the following generous individual donors: Neelesh Prabhu; Matthias Schiller; Henry Singer; Jutta Rolf; Familie Rolf; Rémy Burel; Isolde Hahn-Pfaff; David Burel.

The research behind the exhibition was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Birkbeck, University of London.


Calling all artists!

Call for artists

How do we materialise the history of a subject which leaves few material traces? In the past, conception, pregnancy and birth were largely private experiences, perhaps further obscured by their ephemerality, as well as the secrecy and partial medical knowledge surrounding them. Recovering their histories means considering their material traces, no matter how absent.

We invite artists to join and collaborate with a network of academics from history, architecture, literature, art and art history, to examine and elaborate the meaning of the objects, spaces, descriptions and other archival materials left behind by maternity. The academic contributors have suggested a range of objects that they would like to share – from eighteenth-century letters, to a caul, to uterine membranes, to an original pregnancy testing kit – and we are hoping you would like to respond with discussions and new artworks. The aim would be to contribute ‘work in progress’ and processes of thinking at a two-day symposium/workshop. The selected artists will be asked to participate in the 2-day event by presenting early research/work they have produced as a result of their engagement with one or more of the proposed objects. Completed artworks will be displayed alongside the historical objects and materials to which they respond in a later event, in June 2018.

Unfortunately we cannot pay fees and expenses at this stage, but may be able to pay artists’ expenses for the 2nd event in 2018. There will be no fees charged of collaborating artists.

For full information about this call for collaboration and how to apply please email Dr Isabel Davis (

Deadline: 8th September 2017.

Featured image: A Cesarean patient prior to dressing the wound. From Edward Siebold, Abbildungen aus dem gesammtgebiete der theoretisch-praktischen geburtshülfe, 1829.

[This image was reproduced from the U.S. National Library of Medicine]

Conceiving Histories at Birkbeck Arts Week

Come and see our work in progress on the Conceiving Histories project, which looks at the history of un-pregnancy (trying to conceive, the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy and reproductive disappointment).

WEDNESDAY 17th MAY 2017, 6-7.30pm. Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square. FREE. ALL WELCOME. Book a place here.

We will be talking about pregnancy diagnosis today and in the past. How did people in the past imagine and anticipate the future of pregnancy diagnosis? For all our technological advancement, in what ways does our experience of trying to diagnose early pregnancy resemble that of people in the past?

Here is one assessment from Giralamo Mercurio in the fifteenth century, which didn’t quite predict the future:

As to the signs that some people think they see in the urine, this is such a false lie that it belongs more to charlatans than to physicians because the moon has more to do with shrimp than with urine in showing whether or not a woman is pregnant.[1]

How reasonable he sounds but, it turns out, how wrong. Of course Mercurio was arguing against those who thought that urine was key to pregnancy diagnosis, who imagined the future that we now inhabit. Come and hear more about a curious history which is strangely more connected with our world today than is always thought.

We’ll be looking at some new art work from Anna Burel which focuses on the bizarre Xenopus frog pregnancy test, used in the twentieth century. Here is an example:

Frog Work, © 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017

There are also lots of other interesting events at Birkbeck Arts Week. They are all free and everyone is welcome. Find out more and book your place here.

Featured image at the top of this page: monkey doctor and a stork, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum MS 298, folio 81r

[1] Girolamo Mercurio, cited in Rudolf Bell, How to do it: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians (pp. 71-72).


Frogs and annunciations

As soon as the doctor told her she was pregnant, she felt frail and nauseous, although she had not done so before.

‘But are you sure?’ she asked, foolishly, she felt, picking up her skirt and stockings. The doctor was washing his hands.

‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘No doubt. Better book you into a maternity hospital.’

She laid a hand wonderingly on her stomach.[1]

This is how the writer Angela Carter imagined a pregnancy diagnosis at eight weeks in her unpublished short story ‘The Baby’ from about 1961. The skirt and stockings on the floor, the doctor washing his hands: Carter imagines an internal examination. ‘The Baby’ is intended to be naturalistic – a woman discovers she is pregnant and worries, particularly about her relationship with her partner. The story is mostly not magical realism of the kind that made Carter famous. However, an eight week pregnancy couldn’t, indeed still can’t be, determined by internal examination and so the story in this excerpt is inadvertently magical, more like a fairytale than anything true to life. Carter imagines the doctor here as all-knowing, even as having special powers.

One of the things that the conceiving Histories project is trying to do is to look at the history of not-knowing, a history of the time when people are wondering ‘am I? aren’t I?’. Part of what we want to look at is the search for a diagnosis in that in-between time and the desires and fantasies generated in ignorance. In ‘The Baby’ the protagonist feels foolish because she doesn’t know and the doctor does. But there is an even more profound unknowing which may be the source of the sense of foolishness described here.

Before it was possible to piss on a stick to determine pregnancy, urine was injected sub-dermally into animals. For much of the twentieth century it was frogs, mostly South African clawed xenopus laevis toads – aquatic, carnivorous and tropical. Frogs because they emitted eggs externally and did so in reaction to the injection of pregnant urine, and so didn’t have to be dissected to get the result. As Edward Elkan, a doctor  who kept a hundred frogs in a tank on the balcony of his flat overlooking Regents Park for testing his private patients in the 1930s, wrote: the xenopus test has the advantage over other tests which require ‘hecatombs of young mice’.[2] The test was as accurate as our pregnancy tests are today.

The logistics of this test, as it developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s are extraordinary. Women’s urine was sent with a fee by post from doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies to diagnostic centres where it was injected into frogs which had been sent by ship from South Africa. The Family Planning Association archive, at the Wellcome Library, is full of documents about the international transport in these frogs.[3] The FPA got their frogs from Peers Snake Farm and Zoo in Cape Town, through an animal transport agent, Thomas Cook and Sons.

London, Wellcome Library, SA/FPA/A3/11/13: Box 23
London, Wellcome Library, SA/FPA/A3/11/13: Box 23

They bought them in batches of 500; mainly these were female frogs but sometimes also male ones. They started getting them in 1949 and stopped in 1963 when immunoassay tests were available. The frog supply was dependent on the weather and the health of the population; sometimes they died in transit. One of the main questions which dogs the archive, to give a sense of the logistical challenge presented by this test, is whether it is cheaper to ship back the containers that the frogs came in or buy new ones each time.

Pregnancy really wasn’t diagnosed through internal examination, then, in the way that Carter imagines in ‘The Baby’. This lack of knowledge isn’t peculiar to Angela Carter. Most people didn’t know how pregnancy was diagnosed at the beginning of the 1960s; lots of medical practitioners themselves had no idea. Lots of people don’t know today that this was the way that pregnancy testing was done for most of the twentieth century.[4] Women got their results from doctors, rather from the test centre itself. Because tests were usually done in extremis, the result was no doubt the important thing, rather than finding out how the trick was done.

The Family Planning Archive is full of all sorts of documents about this test but what isn’t in the archive is much about women themselves, the people being tested. So, on the one hand, we have Angela Carter’s story and a lack of knowledge about how a result was achieved, that is how pregnancy was diagnosed and, on the other hand, the archive articulates an equivalent ignorance or at least a lack of curiosity about the people whose urine was being tested in the frog labs. The labs tested urine, not people.

In response to this, Anna Burel, who is making artwork as part of the Conceiving Histories project, has set about the task of creating a fictional archive which re-introduces the idea of the tested woman missing from the archive.

Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017

She is using the forms of the documents in the Family Planning Archive to do this, picking out the visual elements of telegrams which went backwards and forwards between the Association’s diagnostic centre in Chelsea, Thomas Cook and the snake farm in Cape Town.

Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017

She has also made a number of plaster frogs, each has its own type written label, marked with the name of a fictional person. Each of those tags corresponds to the label on a urine sample bottle.

Frog Work, © 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel, 2017

Making fictitious matches between frog and urine, by inserting names, Anna’s work is trying to close the gap between the diagnostic centre, and what went on there, and the lives of people who sent in their samples and waited for results. She is presenting, through the gesture of her figures, an impression of their responses to their results.

Anna and I have been thinking a lot about the annunciation, in relation to the whole project, as a pregnancy test before such things existed; no doubt there’ll be another blog post about it. What a wish-fulfilment fantasy: someone will come from another world and tell me the answer. We have been thinking about the annunciation, too, in relation to the lack of knowledge of the urine/xenopus test. In the traditional idea of the annunciation – when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to have a baby in the Gospel – Mary’s pregnancy isn’t just announced it is also brought into being at exactly the same time. Often this is depicted in medieval art by a ray of sunlight, coming through a window, beaming onto or into Mary, sometimes carrying a little image of Christ or the holy spirit in the form of a dove.

Gentile da Fabriano, Annunciazione (1423-5) Pinacoteca Vatican
Gentile da Fabriano, Annunciazione (1423-5) Pinacoteca Vatican

Returning to Angela Carter’s imagined scene, she describes something rather similar. The doctor knows by putting his hands inside her, penetrating her in a mundane version of the divine conception. He magically reports and also symbolically impregnates, putting the foetus into the womb by hand.

Frog Work, © Anna Burel, 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel, 2017

Given the lack of knowledge about diagnostic practice, women might as well have been told their results by angels, the diagnostic centre was as remote as the other, spiritual world from which angels are thought to come.






[1] ‘The Baby’ (c. 1961), London, British Library MS Additional 88899/1/42

[2] Edward Elkan, Sketches from my Life, (1983), p. 56. London, Wellcome Library MS 9151.

[3] London, Wellcome Library, SA/FPA/A3/11/13: Box 23.

[4] One person who does know is Cambridge researcher Jesse Olszynko-Gryn. He is currently preparing a book on the history of pregnancy testing. You can read some of his work and find out more about the xenopus test here.

The Experimental Conception Hospital

In the past medical practitioners were in the same boat as their patients when it came to diagnosing early pregnancy. If you’ve ever wondered ‘am I pregnant?’ you’ll know that it’s not always that straightforward to ascertain. Some people, of course, know it straight away: their symptoms are really strong and when they do a pregnancy test it’s confirmed. Others experience things differently. They might not be sure at all but getting a positive pregnancy test sorts it out for them. Those that get a negative result may have to wait a little longer to find out but, eventually, a negative is a negative and they can be sure. The ambiguity of early pregnancy is capped for us, in a way that it wasn’t in the past, by reliable tests and sonography.

Just like their patients, modern medical practitioners also have a wait before they can rely on the tests and scans. In that wait they may well feel for their patients, recognizing that the wait isn’t very easy especially if they’re waiting like this every month for years indefinitely. They don’t, though, endure the wait in quite the same way; they have lots of patients and no doubt their own preoccupations. The cap provided by modern testing technologies means that they are removed from a considerable predicament which medical practitioners faced in the past. Of course, practitioners’ concerns are different from those of their patients. Whilst some of them worried about pregnancy diagnosis because they wanted to help their patients, others worried for themselves – for their medical reputations – and others worried for society at large. After all, if you can’t diagnose pregnancy it is hard to establish paternity and so ensure correct title and property transfer, those things which underpinned social, economic and political life. In societies which put a lot of store in blood lineage, a woman’s curiosity about her condition and her future were much less important than male anxieties about whether their children were their children.

Sadly we don’t have as much historical evidence as we would like about the feelings of ordinary people who were trying to conceive and not having much luck. But what we do have is quite extensive evidence of the difficulty that practitioners report about trying to diagnose pregnancy. Looking at that evidence exposes as age-old some of the perplexities within the experience of trying to conceive and, because of this, thinking about those difficulties in the past may help us to think through our own today. Sometimes it’s easy to think that in our modern times we are peculiarly impatient, peculiarly unused to desires not being realized, peculiarly anxious to know about our futures; it’s easy to imagine that people in the past accepted unknowns more readily than us. However, that’s not what the archive shows. People in the past were just as eager as we are to know things and they thought hard about how they could to come to know them.

The Experimental Conception Hospital is a fictional laboratory invented in relation to a legitimacy case in 1825-6. It is an extraordinary idea about how conception might be pinpointed in a time before the relationships between menstruation, ovulation and the processes of conception were fully known. Our project has been working on this fantasy institution in different ways, writing an account of it for publication but also making art work which takes a different look at the Hospital. We have put together a little 5 minute film (below). The images are part of a long piece of artwork which Anna Burel is making to present the Hospital’s 100 female experimental subjects. They are in different stages of undress and take up different postures. They are waiting, queueing perhaps. They are faceless, wearing masks. They are just numbers. The sound gives the full text of the Hospital’s description, detailing how it will be arranged. It is a dream institution which will resolve the questions of law raised by the difficulties of pregnancy diagnosis. It is imagined from a male perspective and gives no thought at all to the people incarcerated and experimented on. It is a dark Gothic science-fiction, an erotic fantasy about walling up women.

Hidden faces – hidden histories

This week is fertility awareness week. As part of events this week, Fertility Network UK has a ‘hidden faces’ campaign to challenge stereotypes about who might struggle to become a parent. The campaign comments, too, on the unseen nature of fertility issues. hidden-faces

The strong cultural message not to mention a pregnancy until the end of the first trimester brings with it a cultural silence about infertility and miscarriage. Because of this silence, many who find themselves struggling to conceive are surprised by the experience.

Pregnancy books, whilst they often have a section on fertility treatment, don’t often dwell on the very common experience of things just not happening for a long time. They have sections on late miscarriage, but don’t say very much about early ones. There is often an inset about how long, on average, it takes people to conceive, but no one is average so it means little to an individual reader. The cultural representation of pregnancy often emphasizes its immediacy: that even one sperm at any time of the month might fertilise an egg. Watch out, we rightly tell children in sex ed. But really it often takes time. It takes time, too, to discover there’s a problem, time to approach a doctor, time in which people are wondering and waiting.

On the page about fertilization in a popular ‘childbirth bible’ a diagram of the female reproductive organs, cut away so you can see inside, shows an egg being released from the ovary on the far left. Just below, the egg is pictured again surrounded by sperm.

Miriam Stoppard, 'Conception, Pregnancy and Birth' (2008), pp 32-3.
Miriam Stoppard, ‘Conception, Pregnancy and Birth’ (2008), pp 32-3.

It is shown again, dividing on its journey across the page and down the fallopian tube; again, implanting in the uterus wall; and a blown up detail depicts an embryo at four weeks gestation.  Then, on the far right of the page, with its feet nearly kicking the cervix, is a baby: naked, smiling, lying on its front and holding up its head.

Given that babies generally can’t hold their heads up and smile about it, until they are at least four months old, this page charts a process which takes, at absolute best, thirteen months, or fifty-seven weeks in pregnancy-speak. For those that spend any time trying to get from one side of the page to the other, let alone onto the next section of the book – ‘You and your developing baby’ –  this image and its neat representation of all the processes of conception happening perfectly, and all at once, doesn’t look quite right. There’s a bit, a wait, missing from this diagram.

Our histories of conception also jump ahead to pregnancy and childbirth. If you do a vox pop in the street and ask people ‘what do you know about pregnancy in the past?’ people would probably say that it was scary and that childbirth was really dangerous, that, because of this, there were lots of ways in which women tried to prevent pregnancy. Women might join a nunnery to avoid the dangers of marriage and childbirth, for example, or they might take drugs to ‘regulate’ periods, which also had the unspoken effect of terminating unwanted pregnancies.

These things are true and lots of good historical research tells us so. But there is also another story to tell, which hasn’t been told as often: the history of not being pregnant for month on month, year on year, for a lifetime. Parts of this history have been written in different places, but those parts haven’t been put together yet in a cross-period study which precisely addresses this issue. That’s what the Conceiving Histories project is trying to do: bringing material together which is already out there, but also uncovering things which are hidden in the archives – bringing out the Hidden Faces of the past.

To give just one example, this week I am going to be talking at a workshop about the case of Queen Mary I (1516-1558). It’s quite well known by historians that she had two false pregnancies. She thought she was pregnant, her physicians and female attendants thought she was pregnant, but she wasn’t. She waited and waited, well beyond her supposed due date, and nothing happened. Her husband (Philip II of Spain) waited, too; the Venetian Ambassador wrote home that ‘one single hour’s delay in the delivery seems to him a thousand years’.[1] Everything was ready: a nursery with a crib, beautifully painted with a special prayer, the public was poised to celebrate. Everybody waited … forever.

Whilst she waited, Mary wrote letters to her friends and to foreign heads of state announcing the birth. She left the date blank and enough space after the word ‘prince’ to add the Ss which would announce a girl instead.

Letter from Mary to Cardinal Pole, 1555 day and month left blank.
Letter from Mary to Cardinal Pole, 1555, with blank spaces for the day and month at the beginning of the penultimate line here.

She made other arrangements, writing her will, for example, as lots of women did, in case they died in childbirth.

Then somehow word went out that the baby had been born: there had been no labour pains; the baby, a boy, was born. It was a perfect story. Easy.

[P]eople made public demonstrations of joy, by shutting the shops, processions in churches, ringing the bells, public tables being spread with wine and viands for all comers; and although it was day there were bonfires in the streets.[2]

Mary had retired to Hampton Court when she thought her baby was due. She was ‘lying in’ and so it was understood that she wasn’t out and about. Eventually, though, when the expected baby wasn’t born, she had to come out. She had to face the public and her humiliation at not being able to conceive and give birth, showing her hidden face. Gathering her nobles and attendants, the court ambassadors, the Lord Mayor and all the London aldermen she went out with the full royal insignia expected when the Queen went out in public. A huge crowd greeted her along a long road.[3]

Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth, 1554; #HiddenFaces
Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth, 1554; #HiddenFaces

Historians are most usually interested in how these events intersected with other aspects of her rule, which is a fascinating question of course. But I want to think about what else we might do with this story, how we might use it to think about now, as well as then. One of the things that particularly interests me is the material substance of pregnancies that don’t happen– the pre-written letters, the empty crib, the premature party. I want to look more at this non-event in our future project and think about the history of what Jessica Hepburn has movingly described as ‘the pain of never’. For lots of people today this ‘never’ has real substance yet, paradoxically, it’s not visible because of our cultural reticence on early pregnancy and fertility issues. National Fertility Awareness Week is all about finding the hidden stories and people’s experience of waiting, hopefully for something, but perhaps for nothing.

To say that nothing, no pregnancy, has a hard material trace is surprising perhaps but it testifies to the existence of a history of un-pregnancy, which Conceiving Histories is unearthing and reassembling. It is there, it’s just hidden.


[1] Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Existing in the Archives and Collections of Venice, 1534-1554, ed Rawdon Brown (London: Longman, 1873), #116, p. 93. June 1st 1555.

[2] Ibid, #89, p. 76. May 21st 1555.

[3] Ibid, #200, p. 173. August 27th 1555.

Catch us at the Being Human Festival

We’re pleased to announce that Conceiving Histories is part of the Being Human Festival programme in November 2016. The festival is a showcase of current humanities research and there is a great programme of events across the country. The theme this year is ‘Hope and Fear’, which speaks directly into the heart of what the Conceiving Histories project is all about.

FREE – book here. When: 23rd November 2016, 6pm-8pm (includes a wine reception).

Where: Senate House, WC1E 7HU. Show on a map.

Hope and fear are projections of the future. Whether hoping or fearing pregnancy, waiting to find out can be difficult. This project looks at what happens in that wait, in the fantasy space before diagnosis – of pregnancy or infertility. How does future projection affect our present? This interest in the present and the future is informed by a study of the past. History, it turns out, is a good way of reflecting on how things are for us and how they could be in the future, a reminder that we are not the first to struggle with uncertainty in our own bodies or in our lives.

Conceiving histories will be addressing the theme of Hope and Fear in the history of un-pregnancy through two curious case studies. One looks at an odd fashion from 1792-3 for the Pad, a false tummy which simulated pregnancy. Most of the evidence for it is from contemporary satire, like in this image here which laughs at the idea that, with a Pad, anyone – old or young – could be ‘pregnant’ with this new look. Even the little girl on the left is padded and so is her doll.

Isaac Cruikshank, Frailties of Fashion (1793) ©Trustees of the British Museum
Isaac Cruikshank, Frailties of Fashion (1793)
©Trustees of the British Museum

We look at the ludic celebration of this potentially absurd fashion but ask some serious questions about it. Today maternity fashions are very exclusive. The divide between maternity wear and other fashions is carefully observed. How does this contribute to the other social distinctions we make between women who can have children and those who can’t or haven’t yet? How does this exclusivity make us feel? Can we imagine fashions for today that enable a participation in pregnancy for all? When we look at the comedy in these depictions of this fashion can we reflect on the potential humiliation in not being, or not being able to be pregnant?

Our other case study is darker, responding more to the festival’s theme of fear. It explores an idea for a strange institution, the experimental conception hospital, described in a commentary on a peerage dispute from 1825-6. With high walls and strict staff recruited from nunneries, the hospital would be a secure and secret space in which a hundred women were brought in as experimental subjects. These experiments would solve pressing questions about how to diagnose early pregnancy in an age before reliable pregnancy testing and calculate precisely the length of gestation. What a public service that would be! The experimental conception hospital prphoto-20-09-2016-16-22-30esents a fantasy about the future but one which looks back to the medieval past. Just as our project does, it sees history as key to our reproductive futures. We’ll be looking at this intriguing historical example to think about fantasies of scientific objectivity in relation to the reproductive body and why such fantasies might trigger a return to historic ideas and materials.

Isabel Davis and Anna Burel will be discussing these case studies, considering them historically. However, they will also be presenting new artistic responses to them which are helping to shape the Conceiving Histories project. There will be time to ask questions or offer comments on the work presented and a wine reception for more informal conversation.


Everyone is welcome and the event is free but you need to book a place here.

At Senate House, WC1E 7HU. Show on a map. 23rd November, 6pm-8pm.

Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.

Uncaptioned images: © Anna Burel 2016.

You may also be interested in another event, also at the Being Human Festival:

The Maternity Tales Listening Booth, an interactive installation exploring the spatial history of childbirth. Created by architectural historian, Dr Emma Cheatle, see and hear accounts of homes and midwives in the 18th century and lying-in hospitals in the 19th century. Fill in questionnaires or make recordings of your own experiences of maternity spaces.

Find out more about this event here.